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With the ColdHardFootballFacts Quality Stats starting to take a more useful, reliable form, some of the season's surprising trends also took shape in Week 3. Here are the five biggest takeaways from a revealing Sunday slate in the NFL:
5) The Patriots are more than just Cam Newton, and they look like a contender. Make no mistake, for the Pats to make a legitimate deep run in the AFC playoffs, they'll need Newton to be his Superman best. Still, for a week in which Newton finished a pedestrian 17-for-28 for 162 yards with a touchdown and interception (and a convention QB Rating of just 73.8!!), the Patriots offense was more than lively enough, particularly in a second half in which the ground game gobbled up a fatiguing Raiders defense and showed flashes of their 2018 Super Bowl run. Keep in mind, this all came with center David Andrews, arguably the team's most important lineman, out on Injured Reserve for at least the next three weeks. Meanwhile, the Pats defense was at its bend but don't break best with the exception of one late first half drive, including a near complete shutdown of superstar tight end Darren Waller. Yes, Kansas City will be an even better test next Sunday, but for now the Patriots proved they aren't going to simply fade off and let the Bills run away with the division.
4) This isn't your father's AFC East. Speaking of the Bills, Buffalo found a way to make a walkover win against the Rams a nailbiter, but still showed the gumption to pull out a narrow win thanks to some clutch quarterbacking from Josh Allen. Yes, that's a real sentence, and at this point it has to stop being a surprise to write. Allen is still a bit of a "beauty in the eye of the beholder" passer, but his statistics are becoming undeniable; on Sunday he finished with 311 passing yards and four touchdowns while surrendering his first interception of the year. He was also efficient en route, completing a shade under 73 percent of his passes and rushing for another touchdown. The collapse from a 25-point lead to late fourth quarter deficit is surely troubling, but the fact that the Bills won is worth noting and celebrating.
You know who else one in relatively impressive fashion? The Dolphins on Thursday night, when Ryan Fitzpatrick finished with two touchdown passes and QB flavor of Week 1 Gardner Minshew had none. Don't get us wrong. We're not here claiming the Dolphins are contenders. What they are is a group of really dangerous spoilers, a more experienced, talented and balanced version of the 2019 Dolphins (who had no business winning five games).
Yes, the Jets are still horrific, and may very well be the NFL's worst franchise. The other three AFC East squads should give opponents a headache, and make for some seriously entertaining football in December, when the division has been completely wrapped up much of the past decade. In fact, when compared to the other divisions in football, the AFC East looks positively combative. Look for all three of the Bills, Patriots and Dolphins to continue to move up the Intelligence Index again this week, which may put them in the slots more in line with their competitiveness.
3) Meanwhile, the AFC North is an organized steel cage death match. If the AFC East is talented, what does that make the AFC North? Before the Ravens even kick off against the champion Chiefs tonight, the division looks like the most dangerous in all of football. The Ravens are the best team in the NFL statistically through two weeks, and the eye test makes them appear even better, if that's possible. The Steelers are 3-0 and plucky, as they proved with a comeback victory against a desperate Texans team. The Browns looked positively Brown-ish in a Week 1 loss, but have bounced back with decisive victories against the Bengals (despite Joe Burrow's best efforts) and Washington. And while the Bengals may well be in a bottomed-out season, but Burrow has the talent and moxie to ruin an opponent's game or even season ... perhaps including the other divisional rivals.
Given the state of play from the other three AFC divisions, and the extra playoff berth on offer, it would almost be upsetting if the AFC North didn't send three of four teams to the playoffs this year. Much of that may fall on the shoulders of the Browns and first-year coach Kevin Stefanski, who has made impressive adjustments in Weeks 2 and 3. So far, the Ravens still look indestructible, Ben Roethlisberger looks like good Ben Roethlisberger (and not a guy auditioning for a second career selling autographs at Primanti's) and Baker Mayfield looks a lot more like 2018 Baker than the 2019 iteration. The first two were already in the top-10 in Passer Rating Differential, and a couple more weeks like the prior two could very well land Mayfield there as well. Everyone buckle up, because the AFC North could give us a heck of a ride.
2) Tom Brady and Drew Brees were closer to their old selves. That was true in Brees' case even in a loss. Yes, the passes still aren't 40-yard bombs or 25-yard slants, but Brees was a cool 29-for-36 for 288 yards and three touchdowns in his team's 37-30 loss to Green Bay. In fact, his QBR of 127.8 was even better than Aaron Rodgers, who also had three touchdown completions. The critics will surely continue to point to Brees' average in-air distance on completions, but the fact is that the Saints offense has largely revolved around Brees making short controllable throws and banking on loads of yards-after-catch from his receivers across the past five seasons. If that sounds familiar for Patriots fans, that's fairly similar to what New England designed for Tom Brady, who is now notably being asked to throw much more downfield with far more dangerous weapons than he had with the Patriots. The results Sunday were more in line with what he expected when signing in Tampa in the offseason; three different receivers with completions of 30 yards or longer, two touchdown passes to Mike Evans in the red zone when he was physically overwhelming, another to Chris Godwin. And, for a change, no interceptions.
Throughout his run in New England, the most impressive thing Brady did consistently was not make stupid mistakes. There were questions about that following the Week 1 loss in New Orleans, and another questionable interception against Carolina, but his 297-yard, three-touchdown game in a win against Denver was much more in line with what Brady and his fans expect. The two teams' schedules will shift in the weeks ahead — both play the Chargers, and after that the Bucs immediately get much harder opposition (undefeated Bears and Packers back-to-back, then at the Raiders in Las Vegas), but for now, Tampa and Brady fanatics have to feel more comfortable with where their quarterback is than their New Orleans counterparts, despite Brees ranking far more impressively in Offensive Passer Rating than Brady entering the week.
1) Maybe the Packers should have picked another quarterback sooner. When Green Bay selected quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, many in the NFL shook their head at the Packers' perceived entitlement with Aaron Rodgers; while other teams do everything possible to surround their franchise quarterback with elite weapons, the Packers draft his replacement or defensive talent and then expect Rodgers to make things work. Why do that? Because he can ... and he continues to do so. After some shaky weeks in 2019, his first season alongside head coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers has returned with a vengeance. He entered Sunday night's faceoff with the Saints ranked fifth in Offensive Passer Rating and should move upward following a 283-yard, three-touchdown game with a conventional QBR of 124.9.
Rodgers is again turning a bargain rack family pack of expiring chicken (36-year-old Marcedes Lewis? Really?) into the kind of chicken salad they sell at the Ritz. As a result, the Packers are on track to run away with the NFC North (unless Nick Foles legitimately changes the Bears' offensive fortunes ... which he may!), and should be one of the primary contenders for the all-important No. 1 overall seed and first round bye in the conference. Yes, Aaron Jones remains a dynamic game-changer for Green Bay, but this is Rodgers' team, and his ability to win while using the likes of Allen Lazard (!!! 146 yards and a touchdown!?!) as a primary receiving threat continues to be revelatory.